Mark did things the old fashioned way. It took longer, and it was more work, but like grandpa had always said: You can't turn a lump of coal into a diamond with a pair of pliers. Mark was the lump of coal. Inconsequential to the world. A Senior in high school, but a Freshman in life, going nowhere. And now that grandpa was gone, he felt like a fish out of water, going through the flapping motion of trying to plan a future.
The library was about to close, and he was on his way out with a stack of "recipe" cards covered front and back in nervous scribbles when he heard a sharp voice come from one of the cubicles in the far corner.
"Tornado warning, guys!"
"Geeze! Now?" an older, nasal voice whined from behind the Circulation desk.
The man jiggled a set of keys in the air at her and crackled a laughter-infused sigh.
"Yep! Just got the alert on my phone," she replied.
A distant siren began to wail. Mark debated, his macaroni body stiffening, with one hand on the door handle and one leg raised slightly off the marble tile. He could see his rusty '96 GEO Metro through the glass; and the sickly green sky up above it. It was as still and quiet outside as it had been in the building all afternoon.
"Sir, are you the only patron in here?" the woman from the cubicle asked while darting around the area and peeking into the stacks.
"Yeah, I think so," Mark whispered out of habit.
"I just checked," the man with the keys informed, returning from the Non-fiction section, "no one else in here."
Within seconds, Mark saw the entire team assembled between gondolas of new books, all with professional smiles that seemed to challenge the forces of nature beyond the walls.
"Sir, you'd better stay for a few minutes until the warning expires to be on the safe side," the woman from the cubicle admonished. "We'll go into the Story Room; it's the safest place."
Mark gripped the cards to the point of inkiness on his palms and began taking baby steps in the direction everyone else was headed. Then, something about the tone of the man with the keys caused him to lighten the hold.
"Come join us, Guy!"
The six sat in a half circle of small plastic chairs in front of a row of tables with crayons and other craft supplies. A meteorologist spoke through a huge TV that was mounted to the wall.
Folks, do take shelter immediately! As of now, we're keeping an eye on that area of rotation that remains just to the north of I-70. So far, nothing touching the ground, but of course that could all change at any moment given the unstable conditions in the atmosphere...
Mark realized his chair had managed to scoot far enough away from the group he was looking at the backs of their heads.
"Where's...Did he leave?" the woman from the cubicle asked. "Oh, there you are!" she gasped with relief.
"I don't wanna be here either," a porky, bald man wearing a casual T-shirt remarked with a glance in the boy's direction.
"Gary's had a long day," the woman explained. "How many printers went screwy? Like, every single one of them?"
"Every single one of them, several times, Liz. Every. Single. One of them."
"Well, I hold the keys to our freedom! As soon as the weather man says it's okay to close."
"Ugh! Stop that jingling Andy!"
Andy cleared his throat and repositioned his sagging glasses. "Liz, dear, are you getting low on donuts? I'm bringing another dozen in the morning."
"You are Satan, Andy! Satan! I'm trying to do keto and you're trying to turn me into a whale!"
Mark caught himself grinning before he could reverse it.
"Be glad you don't have to work here," a man twice as heavy as Gary turned to say with a calm British accent. He had his arms crossed and his white socks showed beneath the short legs of his slacks.
A tall woman with dark, curly hair and a pantsuit was seated next to Mark.
"Are you a student?" she asked. "I saw you doing some research."
"Yes," he started to say "Nancy" after noting the name pin on her gray vest, "I'm working on my Senior term paper."
"Oh, fantastic!" Andy stated with an affirming nod. "What's the subject?"
Mark reddened over the awkwardness of the question.
"Um...I'm having trouble deciding."
"Well it looked like you pretty much had it all figured out to me!" Nancy complimented. "You were taking notes like crazy!"
"More like going crazy," Mark said, staring at the multi-colored carpet. "Those notes are on ten different subjects, and I can't think of anything to write about any of them!"
"Sounds like me," Liz smirked with her slender hands gesturing a shrug into the air. "I'm one term paper away from my Master's in library science and I'm still on my first paragraph. Rejoice that you actually get to pick a subject! Mine was assigned: The Future of Information Technology as it Relates to Virtual Collaboration in the 21st Century Officescape."
Mark's soft, rounded jaws fell open.
"Oh my god! I would be so stumped!"
"Liz, you've got this, Kiddo!" Andy insisted. "And you too, Guy! You'll figure it out, it just takes a little time."
"Guy" was as good a name as any, Mark supposed, but anyway...
"I'm Mark, and it's a pleasure to meet you, Andy."
He went down the line shaking hands with the team right before the piercing beep of a weather update jarred everyone back into soldier-like stances.
Lights flickered. Ceiling tiles warped. The roar was like jumbo jet engines spooling. Everyone huddled together in the northeast corner of the room, covered with bean bags Liz and Andy had ran and grabbed from the Story room's closet.
They were all shaking in synch with the whole building. The howling and crashing outside sounded like a brutal battle in a world war. Several phones lit up the corner of the room as staff members texted frantic, simple goodbyes to their families. There were unintentional swear words flying through the air along with the debris. Abrupt silence fell.
Mark could hear panting besides his own in the darkness below the makeshift shields of bean bags. He could also sense fresh air. He tossed his to the side and began clearing remnants of roof that had landed on top of the others away. Sparks from the shattered TV shot haphazardly in varying directions, and a burning smell quickly took the place of the freshness.
Mark! Mark! Get out of the building now!"
All five were shouting those words as they struggled their way off the floor with cuts and bruises from pieces of brick and splinters of two-by-fours that had torn through the cushioning. Mark ignored the pleas and attempted to shove each person, one-by-one, toward the fire exit.
Andy and Liz ignored the shoves and took him by the arms as putrid smoke from combusted fabric smothered what little golden daylight had been beaming through the tear in the roof.
"Oh no! Your car!" Nancy exclaimed. Gary, Liz, Andy, and the man with the undersized slacks - whom Mark now knew as Charles - joined forces with her to tip the Metro back over onto its wheels.
"It may not be safe to drive, Guy. Better have it looked at in case there's been a fuel leak," Andy cautioned.
"Do you live here in town? We'll take you home," Nancy offered.
Mark looked at the staff as they stood gathered around his rusty old car. Nancy, with a swollen lump right below the left eye; Andy, with a head full of wavy black hair turned gray by ceiling dust; Charles, with a checkered flannel shirt wrinkled and dampened from exertion; Liz, with the same professional smile as always regardless of the huge scrape that ran the length of her forearm; Gary, untouched physically but clearly ready for a beer. He looked back at the library and the firefighters as all the smoke began to dissipate.
Mark now knew, beyond shadow of doubt, what the subject of his term paper was going to be: Behind the Scenes: How The Library Work Environment Turns Ordinary People into Extraordinary Pillars of the Community.